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WHO pollution data shows 14 of world's top 15 most polluted cities in India; but report praises PM Modi's signature Ujjwala scheme

By Jack Thomas | PUBLISHED: 02, May 2018, 11:23 am IST | UPDATED: 02, May 2018, 11:42 am IST

WHO pollution data shows 14 of world's top 15 most polluted cities in India; but report praises PM Modi's signature Ujjwala scheme New Delhi: Delhi and Varanasi are among the 14 Indian cities that figured in a list of 20 most polluted cities in the world in terms of PM2.5 levels in 2016, data released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows.

Nine out of every 10 people on the planet breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants and kills 7 million people each year, according to a new study from the World Health Organization.
The study is an analysis of what the WHO says is the world's most comprehensive database on ambient air pollution. The organization collected the data from more than 4,300 cities and 108 countries.

"I'm afraid what is dramatic is that air pollution levels still remain at dangerously high levels in many parts of the world," Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO's Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said of the study published Tuesday. "No doubt that air pollution represents today not only the biggest environmental risk for health, but I will clearly say that this is a major, major challenge for public health at the moment and probably one of the biggest ones we are contemplating."

The WHO data also said that nine out of 10 people in the world breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Other Indian cities that registered very high levels of PM2.5 pollutants were Kanpur, Faridabad, Gaya, Patna, Agra, Muzaffarpur, Srinagar, Gurgaon, Jaipur, Patiala and Jodhpur followed by Ali Subah Al-Salem in Kuwait and a few cities in China and Mongolia.

In terms of PM10 levels, 13 cities in India figured among the 20 most-polluted cities of the world in 2016. The WHO has called upon member-countries in its Southeast Asia Region to aggressively address the double burden of household and ambient (outdoor) air pollution, saying the region, which comprises India, accounts for 34 pc or 2.4 million of the seven million premature deaths caused by household and ambient air pollution together globally every year.

Of the 3.8 million deaths caused by household air pollution globally, the region accounts for 1.5 million or 40 per cent deaths, and of the 4.2 million global deaths due to ambient air pollution, 1.3 million or 30 per cent are reported from the region, it said.

The PM2.5 includes pollutants like sulfate, nitrate and black carbon, which pose the greatest risk to human health. WHO's global urban air pollution database measured the levels of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) from more than 4,300 cities in 108 countries, according to which ambient air pollution alone caused some 4.2 million deaths in 2016, while household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths in the same period.

Since 2016, over 1,000 additional cities have been added to WHO's database, which shows more countries are measuring and taking action to reduce air pollution than ever before.

"WHO estimates that around 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia," the report said.

According to the report, more than 90 per cent of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries (including India), mainly in Asia and Africa, followed by low- and middle-income countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region, Europe and the Americas.

"Around 3 billion people – more than 40 per cent of the world's population – still do not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies in their homes, the main source of household air pollution," it said.

It said the WHO recognises air pollution is a critical risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), causing an estimated 24 per cent of all adult deaths from heart disease, 25 per cent from stroke, 43 per cent from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29 per cent from lung cancer.

The report, however, stated countries are making efforts and taking measures and in this context, referred to India's Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which it said, in just two years, has provided 37 million women living below the poverty line with free LPG connections to support them to switch to clean household energy use.

India targets to reach 80 million households by 2020. All countries in the region are making efforts to expand availability of clean fuels and technologies, however, over 60 per cent population do not have clean fuel.

The combined effects of household air pollution and ambient air pollution become increasingly hard to address if not tackled early, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director, WHO Southeast Asia, said.

"Air pollution needs to be brought under control with urgent and effective action. Non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of deaths globally and in the region, and air pollution contributes significantly to NCDs such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and lung cancer.

"Cleaning up the air we breathe will help prevent NCDs, particularly among women and vulnerable groups such as children, those already ill and the elderly," Singh said.

"Many of the world's megacities exceed WHO's guideline levels for air quality by more than 5 times, representing a major risk to people's health," Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health at WHO, said, adding, there is an acceleration of political interest to deal with this global public health challenge.

"Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalised people bear the brunt of the burden. It is unacceptable that over 3 billion people – most of them women and children – are still breathing deadly smoke every day from using polluting stoves and fuels in their homes," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO.

Major sources of air pollution from particulate matter include inefficient use of energy by households, industry, agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants. In some regions, sand and desert dust, waste burning and deforestation are additional sources of air pollution.

"Air pollution does not recognise borders. Improving air quality demands sustained and coordinated government action at all levels," the WHO said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature Ujjwala Scheme came in for rich praise in a new WHO pollution report. The report nevertheless estimated that 9 out of 10 people around the world breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. An estimated 7 million people every year die of diseases caused by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution.

“While the latest data show ambient air pollution levels are still dangerously high in most parts of the world, they also show some positive progress. Countries are taking measures to tackle and reduce air pollution from particulate matter. For example, in just two years, India’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Scheme has provided some 37 million women living below the poverty line with free LPG connections to support them to switch to clean household energy use,” the report said.

Launched by Modi on May 1, 2016 in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) aims to safeguard the health of women & children. BPL families are given LPG connections with a support of Rs 1600 per connection in the next three years.

The report estimated that ambient air pollution alone caused some 4.2 million deaths in 2016, while household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths. A total of 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia, the report said. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as “fine” particles and pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size, fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.

Commenting on the findings of the report, WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden. It is unacceptable that over 3 billion people – most of them women and children – are still breathing deadly smoke every day from using polluting stoves and fuels in their homes. If we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development.”

The report shows that more than 90% of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, followed by low- and middle-income countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region, Europe and the Americas.

“Many of the world’s megacities exceed WHO’s guideline levels for air quality by more than 5 times, representing a major risk to people’s health. We are seeing an acceleration of political interest in this global public health challenge. The increase in cities recording air pollution data reflects a commitment to air quality assessment and monitoring. Most of this increase has occurred in high-income countries, but we hope to see a similar scale-up of monitoring efforts worldwide,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health at WHO.

The highest ambient air pollution levels are in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and in South-East Asia, with annual mean levels often exceeding more than 5 times WHO limits, followed by low and middle-income cities in Africa and the Western Pacific.

People in Asia and Africa face the biggest problems. More than 90% of air pollution-related deaths happen there, but cities in the Americas, Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean also have air pollution levels that are beyond what the WHO considers healthy.

Because the data are collected from various sources, it is difficult to rank cities. However, the new WHO data show that US cities on the more polluted side of the list include Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Fresno, California; Indianapolis; and the Elkhart-Goshen area of Indiana. Also on the list: Gary, Indiana; Mira Loma, Calexico and Napa, California; Louisville, Kentucky; and St. Louis.

But that can't compare to cities like Peshawar and Rawalpindi in Pakistan, which have some of the highest particulate air pollution levels in the database. Varanasi and Kanpur in India; Cairo; and Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia, also show higher levels.

If you want cleaner air, try somewhere like Wenden, Arizona (population 2,882), or Cheyenne, Wyoming (population 64,019). The Eureka-Arcata-Fortuna area of California; Battlement Mesa, Colorado; Wasilla, Alaska; Gillette, Wyoming; and Kapaa, Hawaii, are all on the cleaner-air list.

One of the bigger US cities with cleaner air is Honolulu, according to the WHO data.

The other large source of air pollution, a problem mostly in developing regions, is in people's homes. More than 40% of the world's population does not have access to clean cooking technology or lighting, the WHO says. Families use wood, dung or charcoal in cook stoves or open fires to make meals and heat their homes, creating airborne particulates indoors. Technological improvements haven't kept up with population growth, the WHO said, resulting in about 3.8 million deaths from household pollution alone in 2016. Women and children share a disproportionate part of the burden with greater exposure to this indoor pollution.

The good news is that many cities are monitoring air pollution, Neira said. And good data can inform political leaders to help them clean up the air.

There are also things you can do at a local level to reduce air pollution. Experts suggest replacing driving with walking, biking or taking public transportation. To protect yourself, stay inside when air pollution levels are high, especially if you have heart problems or are older. Installing filtration equipment in your home's ventilation system can reduce exposure.

The new study is "generally an impressive piece of work and demonstrated clearly the huge global impact of air pollution," said Kevin McConway, an emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University. "While we do still need to continue to take action on air pollution in richer Western cities like London, the position is far worse in lower- and middle-income countries and in many other parts of the world."

Dr. Anthony Frew, who specializes in allergy and respiratory medicine at Royal Sussex County Hospital, agrees but wants Westerners to be mindful that while they breathe relatively cleaner air, their lifestyle is a burden to the environment.
"This report is a timely reminder that we in the West need to remember that we are lucky to live where we do, but our prosperity is built, in part, on polluting industries elsewhere in the world, which impact on other people's health."